City of Dreadful Night

by Rudyard Kipling

He set up conclusions to the number of nine thousand seven hundred and sixty-four . . . he went afterwards to the Sorbonne, where he maintained argument against the theologians for the space of six weeks, from four o’clock in the morning till six in the evening, except for an interval of two hours to refresh themselves and take their repasts, and at this were present the greatest part of the lords of the court, the masters of request, presidents, counsellors, those of the accompts, secretaries, advocates, and others; as also the sheriffs of the said town.—Pantagruel.

‘THE Bengal Legislative Council is sitting now. You will find it in an octagonal wing of Writers’ Buildings: straight across the maidân. It’s worth seeing.’ ‘What are they sitting on?’ ‘Municipal business. No end of a debate.’ So much for trying to keep low company. The long-shore loafers must stand over. Without doubt this Council is going to hang some one for the state of the City, and Sir Steuart Bayley will be chief executioner. One does not come across councils every day.

Writers’ Buildings are large. You can trouble the busy workers of half a dozen departments before you stumble upon the black-stained staircase that leads to an upper chamber looking out over a populous street. Wild orderlies block the way. The Councillor Sahibs are sitting, but any one can enter. ‘To the right of the Lât Sahib’s chair, and go quietly.’ Ill-mannered minion! Does he expect the awe-stricken spectator to prance in with a war-whoop or turn Catherine-wheels round that sumptuous octagonal room with the blue-domed roof? There are gilt capitals to the half pillars and an Egyptian-patterned lotus-stencil makes the walls gay. A thick-piled carpet covers all the floor, and must be delightful in the hot weather. On a black wooden throne, comfortably cushioned in green leather, sits Sir Steuart Bayley, Ruler of Bengal. The rest are all great men, or else they would not be there. Not to know them argues oneself unknown. There are a dozen of them, and sit six aside at two slightly curved lines of beautifully polished desks. Thus Sir Steuart Bayley occupies the frog of a badly made horse-shoe split at the toe. In front of him, at a table covered with books and pamphlets and papers, toils a secretary. There is a seat for the Reporters, and that is all. The place enjoys a chastened gloom, and its very atmosphere fills one with awe. This is the heart of Bengal, and uncommonly well upholstered. If the work matches the first-class furniture, the inkpots, the carpet, and the resplendent ceilings, there will be something worth seeing. But where is the criminal who is to be hanged for the stench that runs up and down Writers’ Buildings staircases; for the rubbish heaps in the Chitpore Road; for the sickly savour of Chowringhi; for the dirty little tanks at the back of Belvedere; for the street full of smallpox; for the reeking gharri-stand outside the Great Eastern; for the state of the stone and dirt pavements; for the condition of the gullies of Shampooker, and for a hundred other things?

‘This, I submit, is an artificial scheme in supersession of Nature’s unit, the individual.’ The speaker is a slight, spare native in a flat hat-turban, and a black alpaca frock-coat. He looks like a scribe to the boot-heels, and, with his unvarying smile and regulated gesticulation, recalls memories of up-country courts. He never hesitates, is never at a loss for a word, and never in one sentence repeats himself. He talks and talks and talks in a level voice, rising occasionally half an octave when a point has to be driven home. Some of his periods sound very familiar. This, for instance, might be a sentence from the Mirror: ‘So much for the principle. Let us now examine how far it is supported by precedent.’ This sounds bad. When a fluent native is discoursing of ‘principles’ and ‘precedents,’ the chances are that he will go on for some time. Moreover, where is the criminal, and what is all this talk about abstractions? They want shovels not sentiments, in this part of the world.

A friendly whisper brings enlightenment: ‘They are ploughing through the Calcutta Municipal Bill—plurality of votes, you know. Here are the papers.’ And so it is! A mass of motions and amendments on matters relating to ward votes. Is A to be allowed to give two votes in one ward and one in another? Is section 10 to be omitted, and is one man to be allowed one vote and no more? How many votes does three hundred rupees’ worth of landed property carry? Is it better to kiss a post or throw it in the fire? Not a word about carbolic acid and gangs of sweepers. The little man in the black dressing-gown revels in his subject. He is great on principles and precedents, and the necessity of ‘popularising our system.’ He fears that under certain circumstances ‘the status of the candidates will decline.’ He riots in ‘self-adjusting majorities,’ and ‘the healthy influence of the educated middle classes.’

For a practical answer to this, there steals across the council chamber just one faint whiff of the Stink. It is as though some one laughed low and bitterly. But no man heeds. The Englishmen look supremely bored, the native members stare stolidly in front of them. Sir Steuart Bayley’s face is as set as the face of the Sphinx. For these things he draws his pay,—low wage for heavy labour. But the speaker, now adrift, is not altogether to be blamed. He is a Bengali, who has got before him just such a subject as his soul loveth,—an elaborate piece of academical reform leading nowhere. Here is a quiet room full of pens and papers, and there are men who must listen to him. Apparently there is no time limit to the speeches. Can you wonder that he talks? He says ‘I submit’ once every ninety seconds, varying the form with ‘I do submit, the popular element in the electoral body should have prominence.’ Quite so. He quotes one John Stuart Mill to prove it. There steals over the listener a numbing sense of nightmare. He has heard all this before somewhere—yea; even down to J.S. Mill and the references to the ‘true interests of the ratepayers.’ He sees what is coming next. Yes, there is the old Sabha, Anjuman, journalistic formula: ‘Western education is an exotic plant of recent importation.’ How on earth did this man drag Western education into this discussion? Who knows? Perhaps Sir Steuart Bayley does. He seems to be listening. The others are looking at their watches. The spell of the level voice sinks the listener yet deeper into a trance. He is haunted by the ghosts of all the cant of all the political platforms of Great Britain. He hears all the old, old vestry phrases, and once more he smells the Smell. That is no dream. Western education is an exotic plant. It is the upas tree, and it is all our fault. We brought it out from England exactly as we brought out the ink-bottles and the patterns for the chairs. We planted it and it grew—monstrous as a banian. Now we are choked by the roots of it spreading so thickly in this fat soil of Bengal. The speaker continues. Bit by bit we builded this dome, visible and invisible, the crown of Writers’ Buildings, as we have built and peopled the buildings. Now we have gone too far to retreat, being ‘tied and bound with the chain of our own sins.’ The speech continues. We made that florid sentence. That torrent of verbiage is Ours. We taught him what was constitutional and what was unconstitutional in the days when Calcutta smelt. Calcutta smells still, but We must listen to all that he has to say about the plurality of votes and the threshing of wind and the weaving of ropes of sand It is Our own fault.

The speech ends, and there rises a grey Englishman in a black frock-coat. He looks a strong man, and a worldly. Surely he will say, ‘Yes, Lala Sahib, all this may be true talk, but there’s a vile smell in this place, and everything must be cleaned in a week, or the Deputy Commissioner will not take any notice of you in durbar.’ He says nothing of the kind. This is a Legislative Council, where they call each other ‘Honourable So-and-so’s.’ The Englishman in the frock-coat begs all to remember that ‘we are discussing principles, and no consideration of the details ought to influence the verdict on the principles.’ Is he then like the rest? How does this strange thing come about? Perhaps these so English office fittings are responsible for the warp. The Council Chamber might be a London Board-room. Perhaps after long years among the pens and papers its occupants grew to think that it really is, and in this belief give résumés of the history of Local Self-Government in England.

The black frock-coat, emphasising his points with his spectacle-case, is telling his friends how the parish was first the unit of self-government. He then explains how burgesses were elected, and in tones of deep fervour announces, ‘Commissioners of Sewers are elected in the same way.’ Whereunto all this lecture? Is he trying to run a motion through under cover of a cloud of words, essaying the well-known ‘cuttle-fish trick’ of the West?

He abandons England for a while, and now we get a glimpse of the cloven hoof in a casual reference to Hindus and Mahometans. The Hindus will lose nothing by the complete establishment of plurality of votes. They will have the control of their own wards as they used to have. So there is race-feeling, to be explained away, even among these beautiful desks. Scratch the Council, and you come to the old, old trouble. The black frock-coat sits down, and a keen-eyed, black-bearded Englishman rises with one hand in his pocket to explain his views on an alteration of the vote qualification. The idea of an amendment seems to have just struck him. He hints that he will bring it forward later on. He is academical like the others, but not half so good a speaker. All this is dreary beyond words. Why do they talk and talk about owners and occupiers and burgesses in England and the growth of autonomous institutions when the city, the great city, is here crying out to be cleansed? What has England to do with Calcutta’s evil, and why should Englishmen be forced to wander through mazes of unprofitable argument against men who cannot understand the iniquity of dirt?

A pause follows the black-bearded man’s speech. Rises another native, a heavily built Babu, in a black gown and a strange head-dress. A snowy white strip of cloth is thrown dusterwise over his shoulders. His voice is high, and not always under control. He begins, ‘I will try to be as brief as possible.’ This is ominous. By the way, in Council there seems to be no necessity for a form of address. The orators plunge in medias res, and only when they are well launched throw an occasional ‘Sir’ towards Sir Steuart Bayley, who sits with one leg doubled under him and a dry pen in his hand. This speaker is no good. He talks, but he says nothing, and he only knows where he is drifting to. He says: ‘We must remember that we are legislating for the Metropolis of India, and therefore we should borrow our institutions from large English towns, and not from parochial institutions.’ If you think for a minute, that shows a large and healthy knowledge of the history of Local Self-Government. It also reveals the attitude of Calcutta. If the city thought less about itself as a metropolis and more as a midden, its state would be better. The speaker talks patronisingly of ‘my friend,’ alluding to the black frock-coat. Then he flounders afresh, and his voice gallops up the gamut as he declares, ‘and therefore that makes all the difference.’ He hints vaguely at threats, something to do with the Hindus and the Mahometans, but what he means it is difficult to discover. Here, however, is a sentence taken verbatim. It is not likely to appear in this form in the Calcutta papers. The black frock-coat had said that if a wealthy native ‘had eight votes to his credit, his vanity would prompt him to go to the polling-booth, because he would feel better than half a dozen gharri-wans or petty traders.’ (Fancy allowing a gharri-wan to vote! He has yet to learn how to drive.) Hereon the gentleman with the white cloth: ‘Then the complaint is that influential voters will not take the trouble to vote? In my humble opinion, if that be so, adopt voting-papers. That is the way to meet them. In the same way—the Calcutta Trades’ Association—you abolish all plurality of votes: and that is the way to meet them.’ Lucid, is it not? Up flies the irresponsible voice, and delivers this statement, ‘In the election for the House of Commons plurality are allowed for persons having interest in different districts.’ Then hopeless, hopeless fog. It is a great pity that India ever heard of anybody higher than the heads of the Civil Service. Once more a whiff of the Stink. The gentleman gives a defiant jerk of his shoulder cloth, and sits down.

Then Sir Steuart Bayley: ‘The question before the Council is,’ etc. There is a ripple of ‘Ayes’ and ‘Noes,’ and the ‘Noes’ have it, whatever it may be. The black-bearded gentleman springs his amendment about the voting qualifications. A large senator in a white waistcoat, and with a most genial smile, rises and proceeds to smash up the amendment. Can’t see the use of it. Calls it in effect rubbish. The black dressing-gown, he who spoke first of all, speaks again, and talks of the ‘sojourner who comes here for a little time, and then leaves the land.’ Well it is for the black gown that the sojourner does come, or there would be no comfy places wherein to talk about the power that can be measured by wealth, and the intellect ‘which, sir, I submit, cannot be so measured.’ The amendment is lost; and trebly and quadruply lost is the listener. In the name of sanity and to preserve the tattered shirt-tails of a torn illusion, let us escape. This is the Calcutta Municipal Bill. They have been at it for several Saturdays. Last Saturday Sir Steuart Bayley pointed out that at their present rate they would be about two years in getting it through. Now they will sit till dusk, unless Sir Steuart Bayley, who wants to see Lord Connemara off, puts up the black frock-coat to move an adjournment. It is not good to see a Government close to. This leads to the formation of blatantly self-satisfied judgments, which may be quite as wrong as the cramping system with which we have encompassed ourselves. And in the streets outside Englishmen summarise the situation brutally, thus: ‘The whole thing is a farce. Time is money to us. We can’t stick out those everlasting speeches in the municipality. The natives choke us off, but we know that if things get too bad the Government will step in and interfere, and so we worry along somehow.’

Meantime Calcutta continues to cry out for the bucket and the broom.